Professionalizing Police Hasn't Worked. Try Privatizing Instead.

No amount of protesting is likely to reduce police brutality in the absence of structural reforms that increase accountability, competition, choice, and incentives.


The Minneapolis City Council's plan to dismantle the city's police department following the death of George Floyd in police custody has some people concerned about how order will be maintained afterward.

It's a reasonable concern. All too often in public policy, overreaction to a scandal creates its own problems. The flip side of that, though, is tolerating abuse, mismanagement, or incompetence. That's too common in government.

Police abuse has qualities that make it especially troubling. There's an asymmetry between an armed police officer and a mostly unarmed civilian population. Since many of us operate with the starting assumption that the police are there to protect us, it's a particular betrayal when they threaten us instead. And police action may seem arbitrary rather than rules-based.

This abstract truth was made concrete to me last year on a weekend morning when I was driving my 20-year-old, beat-up car through one of Boston's fanciest suburbs. I turned a corner and suddenly a man in plainclothes was in front of the car waving me toward the curb. He accused me of speeding, flashed a badge, and identified himself as police, and asked me where I was going. At some point in the interaction, I asked if he had a radar gun. He said, "never ask a police officer if he has a radar." He said I seemed to be reacting very emotionally. I was shaken by the whole thing but never filed a complaint. The whole thing happened in a town where I'm not a resident.

When any government institution loses public confidence, it's worth asking, what are the accountability mechanisms? In colonial Boston, individuals were elected to one-year terms as constables. Having to face the voters frequently for re-election is one way of creating accountability.

 Like so many other government functions in the progressive era, though, policing was professionalized and depoliticized. Some of this was a sincere effort to reduce corruption and move from patronage to civil service; some of it was caught up in the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment of other "reform" and anti-machine politics of the day. A key figure in the professionalizing trend was August Vollmer, who began in 1909 as chief of the Berkeley, California, police department.

During various police scandals over the years, there has been discussion of moving from the model of an appointed police chief or police commissioner to one directly elected by the public, or one accountable to a school-committee-style police commission of members elected by the public. Even frequent direct elections, though, are no guarantee of managerial quality or of public job-approval, to judge by polls of what people think of Congress.

A more radical reform might be privatizing the police. Perhaps the profit motive will create incentives to use technology and scale to innovate in ways that would reduce crime and also reduce abuse. The same way that, say, Amazon and Walmart compete to serve retail customers most efficiently, or ATT and Verizon compete to offer the best cellphone service, police contractors—perhaps even minority-owned or managed-ones—might compete to provide cities with the least crime, the least abuse and misconduct, and the best resident ratings for satisfaction with police services. A risk of that approach is that the private police companies could wind up like defense contractors at their worst—hiring former officials or winning fat contracts with the help of campaign contributions or lobbying expenditures rather than on the basis of quality performance. But even the threat of privatization might help improve accountability for existing government police forces.

It's also worth exploring whether there are steps short of full privatization that might have similar benefits in terms of competition and choice. Perhaps police reform could borrow a page from education reform and create "charter precincts," where neighborhoods opt-out of their city's central police bureaucracy and are allowed flexibility to experiment with different approaches. Successful charter precincts might grow to become charter-management organizations the same way that KIPP or Success Academy or Uncommon Schools charter schools operate multiple sites.

As a cause of death, killings by police, at about 1,000 a year in the U.S., are small in comparison to the numbers dead because of medical errors or "deaths of despair" from alcoholism, drug overdoses, or suicide. There may even be some overlap in cases of "suicide by cop." No amount of protesting, violent or peaceful, is likely to reduce that toll in the absence of structural reforms that increase accountability, competition, choice, and incentives. The Minneapolis City Council's action, though it appears drastic, could be a gesture in the right direction.

NEXT: Protesters Want to Defund the Police. Joe Biden Wants to Hire More of Them.

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  1. There’s no way anyone will go with this. Look at the guff that’s received over privatizing prisons.

    1. I can’t wait for the Coca Cola death squads to patrol the neighborhood!

      1. At least the Coca Cola death squad can go bankrupt when they’re sued into the ground for their malfeasance. The state death squad misbehaves, passes the bill from the civil suit onto the tax payer and gives Officer Jackoff a raise in addition to his paid time off to think about what he’s done. Status quo remains.

        1. Nah, think of it more like PG&E, or a “private” utility. It’ll be a government granted monopoly.

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      2. All I know is my “Coca Cola” trash squad does a much better job then my government trash squad ever did; namely my trash cans aren’t thrown all over the fucking place.

      3. Dominios Pizza had a thing where they repaired potholes, nobody complained about it. No private business will intentionally piss off their customers.

    2. Color me skeptical of private actors enforcing state laws.

      1. They wouldn’t enforce state laws, they’d enforce the policy of the HOA or business that hired them and they’d ask anyone who didn’t obey to leave. Just like if you walk into a store with no shoes they can ask you to leave. They would be able to make a citizens arrest on any violent offender and take them into custody.

    3. That’s a false dichotomy, it’s not privatized if the only customer is the government paying with taxpayer money! Private prisons only privatized the profit, but it’s not really a private enterprise, to qualify as a private business there must be customers spending their own hard earned money who could choose to go with the competition.

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    5. This is stupid and unrealistic. Private prisons hasn’t made them any better than the warehouses run by state or federal prisons.

    6. That’s exactly the point, Diane Reynolds(Paul.). Privatizing has been an absolute and utter disaster. Privatizing the police and their unions will make things a hell of a lot worse than they already are.

    7. If private police lack the legal immunities that government police have, that would serve to keep them from becoming abusive or having too shitty atitudes for fear of being sued.

      1. Also, private police would have to be barred from civil asset forfeiture. It might not be bad idea to prohibit lobbying and vampagn contributions by cop corporations. No private narcs.

        1. Campaign

  2. Will they broadcast all the action live from the streets when they fire all the cops?

    1. Sure, it’ll be an MSNBC crew escorted with an armed, private security detail declaring the protests to be completely peaceful with a backdrop of burning buildings.

    2. We would not need cops in America if we didn’t have alt-right Trump supporting incel terrorists!

      1. The very same terrorists that tried to pretend that they were actually Antifa and started all those buildings on fire and beat old ladies in the street? The real Antifa would never!!! If those incels are really that good at manipulation, how are they not getting laid?

  3. We do have privatized police in private prisons all over the country. And they haven’t worked out very well at all. They have consistently been worse and more likely to violate people’s rights than government prisons. I see no reason why private LE would not be the same.

    We don’t have a police problem. We have a law problem. Hiring private cops to enforce the same oppressive laws isn’t going to fix anything.

    1. Hiring private cops to enforce the same oppressive laws isn’t going to fix anything.

      It would make it worse. Imagine tying a profit incentive to the number of arrests or ‘contacts’ made with the public.

      1. It likely would do exactly that. It is a really stupid idea. Private security is fine. But private police is idiotic.

      2. “Imagine tying a profit incentive to the number of arrests or ‘contacts’ made with the public.”

        You mean like giving officers quotas to ensure that revenue stays high or allowing departments to keep money and vehicles acquired by asset forfeiture that gets funneled into pay for the enforcing officers? Thank the heavens that the state’s monopoly on policing has prevented anyone from figuring out how to profit from policing!

        1. It would make that even worse. Privatizing the police would make all the things you list here worse and all of the perverse incentives even more pervasive.

          1. You make some good points. I do not want the police more effectively enforcing unjust laws. The question is whether people would pay extra for the service. Also, consider whether private police would have the legal immunities that government police do.

      3. Imagine tying a profit incentive to the number of arrests or ‘contacts’ made with the public.

        ::Wyatt Earp has entered the chat::

    2. We have a law problem and a thin blue line problem. We need to solve both.

    3. That’s a good point, John. Privatization of the police and their unions will only make for even more lawlessness and oppression.

  4. I’m not sure privatization represents substantive reform. If you take Chicago charter schools as an example, you’ll get like an ~5 yr. reprieve before charter precincts aren’t allowed to operate within City limits/budgets/sanctions without Union representation. At which point you’ll be back where you started with the difference being either name only or with an extra rent seeker with fingers in the pot.

    1. There’s that, too. Anything which was traditionally ‘public’ previously starts to get leaned on by pro-union politicians (but I repeat myself) who are in Big Union’s pocket.

  5. The problem is overreaction rarely creates political consequences, while even the perception of inaction does. So the attitude is always “We have to do SOMETHING” but no one ever considers whether that something is a good thing or not

  6. At some point in the interaction, I asked if he had a radar gun. He said, “never ask a police officer if he has a radar.”

    How about a gaydar?

  7. The Minneapolis City Council’s plan to dismantle the city’s police department following the death of George Floyd in police custody has some people concerned about how order will be maintained afterward.

    It won’t be dismantled. Worst case, they’ll do what Camden, NJ did when they couldn’t afford their police. They “disbanded” the Camden city police, and then formed the “Camden County Police”. The only difference was that now the more affluent areas of the county (read: all of them), picked up the cost for the city, as well as their own municipal cops.

    1. Will this lead to more white cops policing black neighborhoods?

      1. OBL does this routine better than you.

  8. Anyone ask the police unions about any of this?

  9. The same way that, say, Amazon and Walmart compete to serve retail customers most efficiently

    Amazon police will respond faster if you have Amazon Prime, but they’ll also beat the hell out of you if you’re seen at Target.

  10. “Since many of us operate with the starting assumption that the police are there to protect us, it’s a particular betrayal when they threaten us instead. And police action may seem arbitrary rather than rules-based.”

    Improvements can only be marginal, as long as many of us start with this assumption. The police exist to protect their government and their fellows of the government class. The reason that “…police action may seem arbitrary rather than rules-based…” is because the rules / laws that they enforce are secondary or, even, just excuses to them and their government to the domination, exploitation, and control of citizens that they impose.

    “You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks,…You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years…D.C. had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination.” ~ Donald Trump

  11. Privatization makes sense where there is competition. Police, however, is a more like a utility. The logistics argue for local monopolies. Two police departments competing for the same turf sounds like the first step to turf wars. The mafia protection rackets of the 1920s would look like playground fights by comparison.

    There are lots of things wrong with our police forces. Some functions could be taken away from them and privatized. But I see no good to privatizing without first changing their role.

    1. One of the main reasons municipal fire companies came into being was because volunteer fire brigades were unreliable, and you also had competing “fire companies” like the ones run by Tammany that would extort people to put out the fire.

      Public fire and police companies, as a function, are far more reliable from a safety standpoint than private entities. I certainly wouldn’t want to rely on Blackwater mercs or some MS-13 street gang to police my neighborhood.

      1. Let the police be handled the way a fire company is. They can all sit around and play cards until a call comes in. We don’t have fire man driving around looking for fires to put out. They wait at the station until called. We can do the same thing with the police. Let the police wait at the station until called. On top of that it seems a little bit of overkill to have armed government agents pulling people over to tell them they have a broken taillight, that can be handled by insurance companies or traffic cams. We don’t need guys with guns telling us our light don’t work.

  12. I was not a fan of the disband police movement, and still think it is a stupid motto/cause. However, I can see value in disbanding police and replacing them with sheriff deputies, at least Sheriff’s are elected and thus hypothetically answerable to the voters. It is far from perfect, but things rarely ever are. Humans are messy monkeys after all.

    1. I know technically we are apes, not monkeys.

    2. A move to elected and accountable sheriffs and constables would be a very good step, and less of an emotional hurdle for those more conditioned toward statism than libertarians. Beyond collapsing un-elected and unaccountable city police agencies and moving that role under elected and accountable sheriffs and constables we should do the same to the, similarly, un-elected and, even, more unaccountable state and and federal police agencies.

      That the, also in Reason, slashing of many random citizens tires was done by Minnesota State Police and that Trump’s “Battle of Lafayette Park” was prosecuted against citizens by an alphabet soup of federal police we have much and recent evidence that this problem extends far beyond the city limits.

  13. So, Robocop?

    Look, if we have to live through an insane science fiction future, could we at least choose higher quality plots?

    1. The Expanse? Most policing was done by private security in the books (and the TV series).

  14. As a cause of death, killings by police, at about 1,000 a year in the U.S., are small in comparison to the numbers dead because of medical errors or “deaths of despair” from alcoholism, drug overdoses, or suicide.

    But absolutely enormous compared to the number of death by cops in any other first world country, where it’s usually like 4.

    1. Most other first world countries don’t have our nationwide ghetto culture, nor a widespread array of firearm ownership.

      I certainly don’t want to give up my right to bear arms in service to the idea that it would make Roscoe P. Coltrane less likely to take away my kids or shoot my dog, and there’s nothing we can do about ghetto culture because popular media has been glorifying it for about 30 years.

  15. Oh FFS Stoll. This is ALWAYS the stupidest wing of anarcho thought. What you are arguing for is MONARCHY and feudalism. Where everyone else is a serf or slave. That is what ‘the state’ is under that sort of governance – the private property of the sovereign – passed down to their heir – with the local shit done by local agents (aka nobles and their Sheriff of Nottingham). Except that unlike the more evil proponents of that shit, you are simply utterly dishonest about that. But it is precisely why your ilk always looks back with fondness to the antebellum south as your real-world libertopia.

    Yes you are right about accountability. And yes that accountability actually involves some effort in a system of self-governance. But because you are either lazy or a useful idiot, your ilk always chooses to scrap every positive move towards self-governance created by classical liberalism. Hell at least Dennis was a humorous anarcho.

  16. So Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, and the Black Hand will instill order on the streets. Good one Reason.

  17. Or we apply the NAP get rid of all the “crimes” that don’t pass its test like drug prohibition and live in peace and harmony for ever and ever.

  18. The unions protect the officers, the unions support the Mayor’s campaign with money and endorsements. Likewise for the Attorney General.
    That cozy relationship ends oversight. Money in politics, you don’t say?

  19. Bad idea IMHO. As is privatizing prison. Police (and prisons) are vested with society’s reserved right to commit violence to individuals within society. That right to commit violence is hedged around with lots of rules about when and where that violence can be done (whether that violence is physical, or to individual’s rights, or to their freedom by locking them up).

    Society needs to be directly responsible for doing that violence.

    Converting police forces to county / sheriff based forces, with the head of the organization subject to election on a regular basis sounds like the best method for making the force as a whole directly responsible to their local community.

    In your next sheriff’s election, ask them what their stance is on qualified immunity, civil asset forfeiture, and police being held to the lowest possible standard (did you avoid conviction for your behavior) or to the highest possible standard (did your actions, or inactions, create the appearance of abuse of the awesome privileges that have been bestowed on you as a police officer).

  20. Privatizing overlooks several aspects. First and foremost…crime does not respect lines on a map. So a thief, rapist, robber, burglar, murderer in Miami is also likely to function in Palm Beach, or Tampa, or to keep it simple, Coral Gables. If each municipality has a different contractor, they are competitors; why should they actively cooperate when another’s failure may be to their benefit? They won’t, and offenders will quickly recognize that the sign “Entering Next City” becomes carte balance. Emotional assaults and homicides among gamblers, dissatisfied sex partners, etc., they will occur, and still be crimes as they are now.
    Finally, I agree with ADiggs, above. I have worked for municipal, county, and state, agencies…and elected Sheriffs are the most responsive to the population. The are elected by the people. They must satisfy the people, not some politician as chiefs and commissioners. Their personnel, compared to municipal officers
    serving adjacent areas, are more attuned to the people and work to serve the people not treat them as if they are just there. And then state officers…who generally have no original jurisdiction, move about in their careers so they never have a stake in the community, and work for an even more distant administrator than do the city police to mayors.
    It is also important to consider…will these private agencies provide the pay levels needed to attract qualified personnel? Law enforcement is inherently dangerous…sometimes from offenders, but as well from a higher rate of traffic wrecks, unhealthy hours and eating habits, sitting long hours, abuse to the body from the time behind the wheel or walking areas that are quality roads or locations that are decrepit. This is why LE has the retirement it does…because 50+ year old cops become a medical nightmare for agencies. Expecting the quality applicants wanted (college degrees, above-average psych evaluations, NO criminal backgrounds, decent physical condition) comes with a price…will private business pay it unless confronted by labor unions, which I agree are a large issue with maintaining disciplined personnel.
    Eliminate unions, or at the least establish legislation preventing them from involvement in the disciplinary procedure other than providing legal representation affordably. The public has no idea how much that would satisfy most police, who constantly watch incompetent or bad cops be protected by unions, or hidden away by administrators who seek to avoid bad headlines.
    Overall, it is not a police problem. No one is willing to mention that crowded low-income areas (black, Hispanic, native, white, immigrant) are the center of high crime issues. Cops deal with crime and disrespect in them constantly. Yet the police are also the only social service that serves the people 24/7 (ignoring the fire service because they respond to calls for service, but not otherwise in the mix); the esteemed social welfare services work 8-5, M-F, and walk away. And despite stilted reporting, the police serve and protect the residents of these neighborhoods. They respond to and investigate crimes, and make arrests…where the impoverished/minorities are the victims.
    Make everyone’s lives easier…legalize all victimless crimes. Drug enforcement has a history approaching 150 years…all in failure and constant increase in substance abuse. Legalization would eliminate organized crime…from street gangs thru cartels and traditional organized crime, all of which profit from the exorbitant costs of illegal drugs. Let hookers ply their trade and stop trying to legislate individual morality. The same for gambling. The side crimes – DUI would still be s crime, ODs from bad drugs would likely fall away completely, as business absorbs the field and looks to ensure product safety.

  21. This will happen in the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment.

  22. Privatization is not market or capitalism, it’s still the government, it’s still monopoly (or monopsony depending on perspective). You still only have one customer, the government. It’ll just end up like private prisons. The only viable alternative to police is to abolish the idea of police entirely and start over with what your goals are. There are some great suggestions online about this that don’t even approach this neocon idea of privatization, which is nothing more than a corrupt way to profit from forcefully taken funds.

  23. For some time, I’ve thought that blacks are pulled over more often than whites for petty traffic violations not because they’re black, but because they’re driving beaters and can’t afford to maintain them properly. A number of years ago, I was ticketed for driving my five-year-old Subaru too fast in a school zone–marked ’20 mph on school days when children are present’–even though there were no children or anyone else present, in a very tony, very white Chicago suburb. I decided to fight it, and when I showed up in the municipal traffic court I had almost the only white face outside of the police and court officials. It occurred to me then that pulling over cars that were clearly ‘not our sort, dear’ and mulcting their drivers was a great way for a wealthy suburb to keep property taxes low for its BMW- and Cadillac-driving residents. And when I read years later about Philando Castile getting pulled over for a busted taillight, the serious consequences of that kind of policing became clear.

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